Why You Should Read Chesterton in 2013: A Conversation with Kevin Belmonte
It’s no secret to long-time readers of Kingdom People that I have recently become a fan of G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy rocked my world last fall, and since then, I’ve read multiple books from Chesterton and a massive biography written by Ian Ker.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to a new book, A Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder (Thomas Nelson, 2012), compiled by Kevin Belmonte. Kevin was the lead script and historical consultant for the movie Amazing Grace, and is the author of many books, including William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (with Chuck Colson) and Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton. Kevin agreed to stop by and answer a few questions about the legacy of Chesterton.
Trevin Wax: The subtitle of A Year with G. K. Chesterton is “365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder.” Those three words sum up the reasons I love reading Chesterton. Give us some examples of Chesterton’s wisdom that are still relevant today.
Kevin Belmonte: You’ve touched on a question that could have a very long answer! But here are three passages from Chesterton that are true gems of wisdom. By turns, they’re deeply eloquent, profound, seasoned with wit, or marked by paradox. All four traits are hallmarks of his writing.
Everyone on this earth should believe, amid whatever madness or moral failure, that his life and temperament have some object on the earth. Everyone on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. Everyone should, for the good of men and the saving of his own soul, believe that it is possible, even if we are the enemies of the human race, to be the friends of God.
His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of. He will make himself happy in the traps that have been laid for him; he will roll in their nets and sleep. All doors will fly open to him who has a mildness more defiant than mere courage. The whole is unerringly expressed in one fortune phrase—he will be always ‘taken in.’ To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a guest, the greenhorn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by it.
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.
Trevin Wax: What are some of your favorite Chesterton witticisms?
Kevin Belmonte: Here are three of his best bon mots, though perhaps three that are a little lesser known. They’re taken from my book, The Quotable Chesterton, which is modeled on the classic compendium, The Quotable Lewis. Chesterton, to use a modern phrase, was a master of the sound bite. And I can imagine him having enormous fun with twitter!
Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before.
Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.
Silver is sometimes more valuable than gold…that is, in large quantities.
Trevin Wax: John Piper, in speaking of his admiration of Chesterton, wrote:
I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face— anyone who can help heal me from the disease of ”seeing they do not see.”
How does reading Chesterton increase our sense of wonder in the world?
Kevin Belmonte: I can do no better than cite two passages from Chesterton himself, the first from his Autobiography:
No man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.
And here’s the second, from his classic work of apologetics, Orthodoxy:
I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will.
In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a Person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a Story-teller.
As a young man of college age, Chesterton was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of existential despair. I love what he says about the Story-teller above, because in the deepest depths of his despondency, he says he “hung on to religion by one thin thread of thanks.”
That’s a wonderful allusion to a scene from George MacDonald’s tale of imaginative fantasy, The Princess and the Goblin, which Chesterton devoured as a boy, reading it over and over again. Briefly told, the Princess Irene and the miner boy Curdie found their way out of a dark and dangerous labyrinth of mines and tunnels by means of a magic, invisible thread. It led them up into the light, into the day.
When he most greatly needed to make sense of life, that shard of truth returned to Chesterton. A scene from a much-loved children story rallied to his aid. It gave him courage to believe. He began to see the world, once more, like a great tapestry woven by the Master Story-teller. He followed the thread of thanks he re-discovered to back the light—to faith.
Trevin Wax: How did you go about choosing what to include in a daily anthology of Chesterton?
Kevin Belmonte: The basic guiding principle was to find everything, literally everything I could, that Chesterton ever wrote about some facet of the Christian faith. My thought was to put all these passages, whether prose of poetry, safely between two covers of a book that would seek to follow the Christian year.
I poured over dozens of books, and hundreds of essays – even obscure Prefaces and Introductions that Chesterton wrote – to find what I needed. I’m glad of the fact that now readers won’t have to spend a small fortune to find these gems.
In short, I want them to be able to purchase a small library of richly devotional thoughts from G. K. Chesterton. And what’s more, a lot of Chesterton’s travels as a reader of great books and writers flow into A Year with G. K. Chesterton too.
Trevin Wax: How did this process compare with the other books you’ve compiled of Chesterton?
Kevin Belmonte: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to write and edit what I call a trilogy of Chesterton books. The first is my literary biography, Defiant Joy, and the second, The Quotable Chesterton. A Year with G. K. Chesterton rounds out the trilogy. And here are some things I can tell you about that book—
Two Chesterton scholars, friends and fellow authors whom I greatly respect, the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite and Joseph Pearce—Malcolm’s Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge University, and Joseph a distinguished biographer of Chesterton—have pointed to how fine a thing it is for readers to now have an anthology of GKC’s best thoughts on all things relating to faith. In this best sense of the word, A Year with G. K. Chesterton is a devotional work, meant to immerse the reader in daily selections steeped in reverence, but studded also with vignettes that trace significant days and events in Chesterton’s life and work.
And here I should say that I was rather staggered that no one had ever published a book like this before. For that, I owe a great debt to my publisher, Thomas Nelson.
Go to any bookstore, or online, and you’ll see that we have many “through the year with C.S. Lewis”-type books, and I’ve read many of them with great profit. All the same, I remember thinking: “It’s high time someone did this for Chesterton.” And so, believing deeply in the need for such a book, I followed Lewis and Tolkien’s dictum of crafting “just the kind of books we would like to read.”
The whole process, from start to finish, has lent a deep and abiding sense of meaning to my own journey of faith. It’s been a real privilege to keep company with Chesterton, as true a saint of the written word as we’ve ever had.